There's a lot to root for in a film like Book Club. Older actors, in particular older women, generally have a harder time finding work in leading roles as the years progress, as younger talent supplants them in the roles that they themselves once headlined, and older audiences are considered relatively niche as they will be attracted to the same youthful stars as modern generations, so whenever that rare film comes along that stars older performers playing specifically to an older crowd, it feels novel. And yet, while Book Club does contain a basic appeal in seeing its four stars engage in rom-com shenanigans, the film built around them isn't worthy of their talents.
To call Book Club a single narrative is a bit disingenuous, as the conceit of the book club is that the four leads essentially reunite at act breaks to recap events and prime their characters for the individual exploits they each pursue. Even the use of the Fifty Shades trilogy as the subject of the film's three club meetings is little more than a shallow excuse to push the sixty-year-old women to start reconsidering their sexuality, and the introduction of each novel plays like a screenwriter's note loudly proclaiming "BEGINNING OF ACT." Instead, the pretense of cohesion allows each of the film's stars to have their own romantic short film, albeit unceremoniously intercut with the other narratives.
Diane Keaton plays a recent widow whose children are overbearingly protective of her imagined frailty, even as she begins to find new love in a roguishly handsome airline pilot. Jane Fonda goes for the archetype of the emotionally closed-off woman of sexual and economic power, only to have a former lover return to sweep her off her cynical feet. Candice Bergen's character has been hung up on the divorce from her husband for eighteen years and finally makes the plunge into online dating to mixed and embarrassing results. And Mary Steenburgen portrays a woman at her wit's end over her sexually disinterested husband. Some of these plotlines feel better developed than others – Bergen's plot in particular feels like it gets the shortest shrift, which is unfortunate as she's this writer's personal favorite – but all of these women are giving their all to performances that rely on their charisma and charm to elevate the material. It's unfortunate then that supporting actors like Richard Dreyfuss, Craig T. Nelson, Ed Begley Jr., and Wallace Shawn seem to only be around as recognizable faces, but the film gets a pass since the women are the main attraction; after all, it's their domestic fantasies the audience is paying to see.
It feels like such a shame then that the screenplay and direction don't feel up to the task of supporting the witticisms of the four leads. The dialogue doesn't so much contain jokes as it does soft conversational barbs, and nothing about the flat cinematography or the limp editing does anything to help the comedy of certain absurd situations. This is film-making at its most workmanlike, devoid of passion behind the camera so that the only things holding up the film are the performances. And while those performances are entertaining, they never quite escape the gravity of the cynicism driving the production. The target audience for the film is likely to get a nice afternoon out of watching the likes of Keaton, Fonda, Bergen, and Steenburgen play out dime store romantic fantasies, but they will also likely forget those exploits immediately after, as nothing really sticks out as notable except the magnetic personalities of the stars. Well, at least it isn't another Fifty Shades film.